Letters: The Riverside Church and pastoral compensation

Letters: The Riverside Church and pastoral compensation

May 14, 2009
Written by Gregg Brekke

The following letter was read to congregants of The Riverside Church in New York City, April 26, 2009. It has been slightly edited for clarity of date references.

During the past weeks there have been several news articles about the compensation for The Riverside Church's senior minister, the Rev. Brad Braxton, and a legal action initiated by four members of the Church. The Church Council wants you to have the correct facts about this issue and to update you on the legal proceeding.

As you know, the Rev. Braxton was selected as our senior minister at the end of a year-long search by a democratic vote of the congregation. The senior minister's full compensation package was presented to the congregation before that vote and after the vote, for a total of three separate occasions, at forums on June 8, 2008, September 7, 2008 and September 11, 2008. In addition, the compensation was voted on, and approved by the congregation in our budget meeting.

The Rev. Braxton's compensation is not $600,000. Nor is it double what we paid the Rev. Forbes. Rather, as we discussed at the congregational meetings, his compensation includes - $250,000 cash salary, housing allowance $138,000, and contribution of 16 percent to the pension plan of ABC. The total compensation is $460.000, which includes social security offset. It is important to note that the pension contribution is the same percentage as was the Rev. Forbes. While the Rev. Braxton's cash salary is greater than what the Rev. Forbes was paid three years ago, the Rev. Braxton's cash salary is the same as we paid to the Rev. Stiers our interim senior minister. Please note there is no full-time maid or money to help buy a home (equity payment). The Rev. Braxton does not live in church owned housing.

Among the factors the church took into account in setting the compensation package for the senor minister was an independent study of twelve religious organizations in Manhattan who minister to congregations of a similar size and scope. The study was conducted by Fletcher Consulting Group in 2003. Our staff trended it forward at our request. According to that study, the package that we initially discussed with the congregation last year, prior to even the selection of a candidate for the new Sr. Minister, and the package that the Rev. Braxton now receives, is in line with compensation packages of those religious leaders. Also, we were advised by representatives of both the ABC and the UCC that the elements of the compensation package and the amounts were consistent with ministers of similar churches within their denominations.

We also want to explain the legal action. The action was filed on Good Friday by four of the members of the Church and asked the Court to delay the Installation. The four individuals were among those who had presented a petition asking the Council to call a special meeting on April 19 to vote to delay the installation and to require the Rev. Braxton to answer certain questions. The petitioners told the Court that the Rev. Braxton's contract provided that he would receive enhanced compensation and benefits after he was installed and therefore it was necessary to delay the installation. At a Court hearing last Tuesday (April 14), the Court found that, as the Church had previously explained to the petitioners, the Rev. Braxton's contract was fully in force before the petitioners brought the court proceeding, the installation service would have no effect on the employment terms of the Rev. Braxton, and hence there was no basis for the petitioners' request to prevent the installation service. Therefore, the Court denied the petitioners' request.

It is unfortunate that the Church had to incur the costs of this legal proceeding. As you know from our April 8 letter to the Congregation, the Council reached out to meet with the petitioners, but only two came who said they could not represent the complete group. In addition, the council attempted to resolve the issues raised by the petitioners and agreed to everything they requested, except their request to delay the installation – which as the Court found was without any basis.

I apologize for having taken time in worship to present these facts, however, as members of this great church you are entitled to know the truth.

As we continue in our worship service, I close with words from Psalm 133, verse 1:
     Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity!

Dr. Billy E. Jones is Church Council Chair, The Riverside Church – a United Church of Christ and American Baptist Churches, USA affiliated congregation.

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